Month: November 2017

Romancing the Stone (1984)

You don’t hear many people talk about Romancing the Stone very much anymore, which feels surprising. It was, after all, a powerful surprise hit in 1984 which launched the career of none other than director Robert Zemeckis who, just one year later, would go on and develop not just *the* signature film of the 80’s but one of the most iconic of the 20th century – Back to the Future. Nobody expected this romantic action adventure caper to work, least of all 20th Century Fox, the studio who made it, who, so convinced Zemeckis had delivered a dud, fired him from the Cocoon directing gig in anticipation. Nobody predicted it would romp home at the box office, cement Zemeckis as a major new talent following in the footsteps of his contemporaries Spielberg, Lucas etc… and establish Michael Douglas as a rugged action hero in Hollywood terms.

What’s strange is why the studio, and most people involved, believed this would be dead on arrival. What gave them that impression? It could be an endemic level of sexism given the fact Romancing the Stone is very much angled from the perspective of Kathleen Turner’s heroine, Joan Wilder. Did they believe such a female entry point into the film would alienate a core male audience? Bear in mind how Zemeckis’ film followed in the wake of the hugely successful Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood helped re-cement the Golden Age of Hollywood idea of the couple with antagonistic, sparky repartee, only wrapped around an adventure movie style. The Empire Strikes Back, with Han Solo & Princess Leia’s biting barbs courtesy of Golden Age scribe Leigh Brackett, did the same thing.

The difference, perhaps, is that Spielberg and Lucas (by way of Irvin Kershner) approached their movies in this context from much more of a male perspective, certainly in terms of how the studio may have experienced these films during production and test screenings. Unlike Raiders with Indy or even Empire with Luke Skywalker, Romancing the Stone’s central protagonist is unquestionably Joan – it is her journey of fantasy wish fulfilment we follow across the picture, not that of Douglas’ Jack Colton, the Indy proxy of the story, who we don’t even meet until almost thirty minutes into Joan’s story. Douglas may have been a producer on the film but he’s not showy, despite having top billing – he’s aware this is Turner and Joan’s showcase.

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The Crown Season 1: The Efficient and the Dignified

The Crown could well end up being one of the most ambitious, grandiose television projects of the modern age. Created by Peter Morgan off the back of his successful stage play The Audience, itself inspired by Morgan’s earlier script for Stephen Frears’ The Queen, it intends to depict the entire reign of Queen Elizabeth II from her marriage to Prince Philip in 1947, all the way through to the modern age, across six seasons. Budgeted at £100 million for the first season, already it’s one of the most expensive seasons of television ever produced, with Netflix investing significant capital into a project they’re very confident is going to go all the way. With a second season about to premiere and a third season in the planning stages, The Crown certainly looks as though it’s here to stay, and given how well put together its first ten episodes are, that can only be a good thing.

Morgan has become one of the pre-eminent screenwriters, if not *the* pre-eminent screenwriter, working in Britain today. He has also been consistently fascinated by the concept of monarchy, particularly Elizabeth II’s still ongoing reign. A decade ago, The Queen entered the public consciousness not just thanks to a stellar performance from Helen Mirren as the ageing monarch, but for depicting the Royal Family’s response to the death of Princess Diana, arguably as signature to the end of the 20th century for British subjects in terms of the Royals as Edward VIII’s abdication was in the early part of the century. Morgan zeroed in on an aspect which played a key role in The Queen, and indeed does in The Crown, for The Audience: Her Majesty’s audiences with successive Prime Minister’s across the decades.

This makes sense. Morgan is equally fascinated by the workings of government, particularly those of British Prime Ministers and the relationship with the United States across the last half century. His scripts have extensively featured Tony Blair in TV dramas such as The Deal and The Special Relationship, not to mention The Queen (played on all occasions by Michael Sheen). This fascination, this welding of government to monarchy and how the two are constructed in tandem, is a central function of The Crown and, indeed, to why the Netflix drama works so well. Morgan delights in making Winston Churchill a fully-fledged, fleshed out regular character (sublimely played by John Lithgow), with his own relationship with the young Elizabeth an important dynamic across the entire season, from a character and thematic perspective.

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Stranger Things, Lost and the Sudden Left Turn

The latest season of Stranger Things, Netflix’s nostalgic 1980’s-set adventure, took an interesting left turn toward the end of its run. The second season had built on the first, continuing the story of a group of teenagers in Hawkins, Indiana, 1984, after they uncovered a conspiracy of government scientists awakening psionic powers within innocent children, with the express means of opening a doorway into the ‘Upside Down’, a dark, demonic reflection of our world. Arguably the breakout star was Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, an androgynous young girl raised by an amoral scientist she named ‘Papa’, before escaping and being taken in by teenager Mike and his party of 80’s geeks.

The Goonies meets The X-Files, right? That and about a dozen other touchstones, from Spielberg’s E.T. through to Stephen King’s Carrie. Eleven proved to be the character who leapt into the popular consciousness with a measure of innocent vulnerability and youthful verve, and it makes sense for creators The Duffer Brothers to give Eleven her own character journey across the second run, in far more of a pointed way than the rest of the ensemble. It’s through Eleven that we find an interesting narrative choice played out by the creators in the second to last episode.

Stranger Things season two operates in a logical manner, developing character arcs for the group – Dustin adopting a monstrous pet, Lucas’ teenage adoration for tomboy and new team member Max, Steve breaking out as the star of the second season, moving from popular jackass to true, underdog hero. So by the time we reach the end of the sixth episode, ‘The Spy’, the scene has very much been set for an epic climax to the story; Will is possessed by the ‘Mind Flayer’ shadow monster, Eleven discovers the truth about her mother and family past, and Hopper sees the government lab in Hawkins being to be invaded by legions of ‘Demi-gorgons’, the monster lap dogs of the Mind Flayer essentially. The first season had eight episodes yet season two has nine, simply for the fact the two-part climactic beat is forestalled in order to squeeze in an episode not originally part of the season tapestry – episode seven, ‘The Lost Sister’.

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Cinematic Universes: the divisive wave of cinema’s future

With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.

In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.

Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.

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Justice League: Modern Superheroes and the God Complex

We are living in the Age of Superheroes. Cinema has been transformed over the last decade, largely since the inception of what became the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), by the ongoing adventures of men (and occasionally, though not often enough, women) in costumes fighting theatrical villains and thwarting global doomsday scenarios. These archetypal creations have been leaping off the comic-book panel onto the silver screen since 1978’s Superman adaptation from Richard Donner and have never looked back, but in decades past they jostled for supremacy with action stars or major science-fiction franchises. Now they dominate. Now they’ve started to become more than just heroes; they’re becoming modern, mythological Gods.

Or, at least, that’s what filmmakers like Zack Snyder would like you to believe. Justice League, his culmination of the DC Comics attempt to emulate Marvel’s transformative ripple effect across blockbuster cinema, builds on ideas he has played with across a career where he has grown increasingly fascinated with finding the Divine extraordinary in the ordinary. 300, his take on the myth of the Spartans mostly remembered for Gerard Butler and his surely CGI’d abs, uses a striking, otherworldly visual palette to mythologise the band of warriors against a hegemonic enemy. Watchmen too, a decent stab at adapting Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ seminal 1980’s anti-war tract, plays with concepts of inhuman, all powerful Godhood in Doctor Manhattan.

Then we get to Man of Steel, Snyder’s enormously divisive reimagining of the Superman origin story, and the God complex hovers fully formed into view. Donner’s take on Superman emphasised a man whose innate humanity helped him save those around him, and fall in love, a take modernised but later essentially repeated by Bryan Singer in the slightly misjudged Superman Returns. Snyder’s Clark Kent is a brooding, haunted shell of a man with the kind of lingering introspection that worked for Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins but feels utterly at odds for the Smallville farm boy, while Snyder’s Superman is distant, all-powerful and ultimately feared by the very people he stayed on Earth to protect. Snyder doesn’t see the last son of Krypton as a man, but a God.

Perhaps the better description would be Christ, given how keenly Superman’s return from death factors into the salvation in Justice League. If Man of Steel suggested the idea of Superman as a Divine figure for humanity to fear, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice—the true instigation point for the ‘DCEU’—actively hits the concept head on. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) quite literally describes the conflict between Superman and Batman as “Man vs God”, and his character is central in attempts to characterise Superman amongst the American public as an unchecked force of cosmic power, certainly following his destructive takedown of sinister Kryptonian Zod across Metropolis.

Now, honestly, the idea of exploring a superhero like Superman as a Christ or God-like figure isn’t remotely a bad one. Superheroes by their very nature have skill sets and specific demographics they protect as vigilante crime fighters or defenders of justice, but Kal-El operates on a scale beyond almost any other ‘superhero’ in all of fiction. Justice League is built around the very idea that an ultra-powerful, galactic alien threat targets Earth after the death of Superman, knowing despite all the tooled up, powered heroes such as Batman or Wonder Woman etc… no one even comes close the ‘man of steel’ in terms of providing an adequate defence. When God abandons Heaven, who is left to protect it from the hounds of Hell?

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Into the forest we go: Star Trek, Discovery and the first frontier

As all new Star Trek television series Discovery closes out its opening half-season, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on this momentous point in modern television. That’s a big word – momentous. The return of Star Trek to the small screen, however, surely fits that description. Without the cultural impact of the original 1960’s Star Trek, television would look a great deal different in the modern day. Star Trek stands as, easily, one of the key pop-cultural touchstones of the 20th century and for all its success as a movie franchise across three separate retinue of actors, television remains and always will remain the true home and heart of Star Trek. Any appearance of the franchise on television is a big deal, and Discovery has been many years in the making.

The wilderness years of television Star Trek were long. Following the transition of Star Trek: The Next Generation to the big screen, subsequent series failed to match the commercial success of the first sequel series to Gene Roddenberry’s original. Deep Space Nine and Voyager both had levels of critical or commercial success (less so Voyager) but neither made the same kind of impact on the cultural storytelling landscape, while Enterprise—the first Trek voyage into the 21st century—was hampered out of the gate in attempting to tell a 20th century style of Star Trek in a rapidly changing television and real world political and sociological landscape.

2005 was the darkest year. Enterprise was cancelled in its fourth season, the year ironically it finally began to find its creative feet and place within the Trek universe, and mirrored The Original Series in how it began a long period of the franchise away from television. Not quite as long as the eighteen years between the end of TOS and the launch of TNG, but it took twelve years for Star Trek to make a return with Discovery, a show which had an enormous legacy to live up to in a world where Trek has experienced significant evolutionary growing pains. You only have to consider the polarising fan reaction to Star Trek 2009 and its subsequent J.J. Abrams led sequels, which repurposed Trek as an action adventure science-fiction franchise, to feel that divide.

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Murder on the Orient Express: Poirot’s Humanity, History, and his Eggs

Murder on the Orient Express isn’t just a remake, or another adaptation of a classic text, it’s also undoubtedly an attempt to contemporise an incredibly well known piece of work, in this case Agatha Christie’s legendary 1934 detective novel featuring her most famed, irrepressible character: Inspector Hercule Poirot. Don’t get me wrong, the piece remains set in the mid-1930’s, with period production values and Kenneth Branagh’s protagonist sporting the most daring, rakish moustache you could imagine, but everything about Branagh’s new take on the material is concerned with highlighting the simmering, modern day issues which Michael Green’s screenplay picks out of this hugely popular piece of detective fiction.

Christie’s original story sees Poirot seeking a holiday, following a case in the Middle East, but upon being recalled back to London to consult on a case, he boards the Orient Express in Istanbul with an eclectic group of passengers from all corners of the world, one of whom in short order ends up dead as the train is stalled by an avalanche while travelling through the mountains. Cue the inspector attempting to put the pieces together in true sleuth fashion, negotiating the myriad egos and personalities of everything from middle-aged American lushes to aged Russian princesses. Well known for its ultimate twist (one I didn’t infact know, nor which I will spoil), Poirot’s ultimate detection leads him to multiple realisations, both literal and emotional.

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